How to choose the best Linux distribution for your use case
Published on June 26th, 2021
The Linux ecosystem is large, and a proof of this is the large number of Linux distributions you can choose from. However, this itself can be overwhelming for a user with no Linux knowledge. So today, I will help you answer the question, Which is the best Linux distribution for me?
Many distributions but Linux being Linux
We already learned in our introduction to the world of Linux that Linux is in fact just the Kernel piece of an operating system. That kernel being Open Source allows it to be used by anybody to make a full operating system that are called Linux distributions.
Each one of them is different from the others, but share the Linux kernel technology. This makes that even if they are different in policy, behavior or interface, we are talking about very similar systems from the technical perspective.
So, you can select between many distributions to suit your needs. Do you want a robust and stable system, even sacrificing new features? Don't worry, there is always one that meets those requirements; or on the contrary, do you need a very active distribution with recent versions of applications? There is also one with those features.
In this way, it is very difficult not to find the ideal Linux distribution.
But not everything is so easy and simple, there are some considerations that are always good to know before making the choice. These considerations can influence the way in which the distribution is used or the purpose of its use.
Ease of installation and use
One of the first criteria for evaluating a distribution is its ease of installation and use.
Long gone are the days when installing and using Linux was for geniuses. Now, most Linux distributions are easy to install and use.
However, there are Linux distributions that place special emphasis on ease of use. These are oriented towards the novice Linux user or those who don't want to complicate things.
In this range we find Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Elementary OS. They are stable distributions that have an effortless to use installer and once installed, they have everything you need to get your hands on it without any problems.
Source code and licence of the distribution
One of the most exciting thing about Linux distribution is that the Linux Kernel use the GPL v2 license, which force all Linux distributions to publicly publish their source code.
Open source doesn't mean free, for instance Red Hat enterprise Linux a distribution focused on professional users, has a paid license. You can still access the source code, compile it by yourself and use it on your home PC. Of course restrictions apply, they own the trademark and copyrights on it, so you can't redistribute it. This model works because they provide enterprise level support and other service with a lot of value for big companies.
For personal usage, there's little chance that you require a commercial distributions.
Hardware is also important for choice
Computers and technology are advancing, but not everyone has the opportunity to change hardware frequently. That is why there are Linux distributions that focus on upgrading so that they can be used on older hardware.
As a general rule, these distributions don't have a polished and refined graphical interface as you might expect these days. However, they are very efficient and can revive old forgotten computers, or devices like Raspberry Pi.
Active development guarantees support
Most distributions are free to use, and provide no guarantee of continuity in their development, leaving users who have put their trust in their projects abandoned. So, it is important to choose a distribution that has not only an active development but a consolidated and mature one.
An active development guarantees that the distribution will not be suddenly abandoned, which will give you security when using it. In addition, you can be sure that new features will be added, bugs will be fixed and packages will be widely available.
Community support or commercial support?
In this segment, it depends on what you are looking for in the Linux distribution. There are some that have the possibility to purchase a license and with it technical support. Others do not.
Often the distributions with commercial support are reserved for companies that buy these licenses for their workstations. This is understandable since that for enterprise, stability is fundamental. It is also possible to choose distributions for production servers, which increases the importance of support.
On the other hand, Linux can be used domestically and in this case, it is best to use serious distributions with community support.
Stability or novelty?
In general, Linux distributions are stable and reliable. There are distributions that have stability as a premise and will only add new packages and version once every few year.
On the other hand, there are Rolling Release distributions that do not have a stable release cycle but are updated frequently. These distributions, although stable, are not as reliable as others, but here what is important is the novelty.
So in this aspect, the decision lies only in terms of necessity, if your computer or server break during a rolling release update you will need the skills and time to fix it.
Privacy and security taken to another level
There are also Linux distributions that put a special emphasis on security and data privacy.
For example, there are distributions specially designed to erase all our tracks and provide us with absolute anonymity. Important in countries where there is no freedom of expression or where there is any kind of danger. They are often used by criminals, whistleblower or activist to stay protected from government surveillance. One of the well-known distribution for privacy is Tails which is configured to only use the Tor network.
Most Linux distribution have good security default, but there are distributions specialized in defensive security. These distributions are great for enterprise user in sector that need high level of security on desktop or production servers. Qube OS or Fedora Silverblue are known for putting an emphasis on security.
Finally, some distribution are focused on offensive security, packaged with tools for penetration testing, ethical hacking and auditing. The most famous one being Kali Linux.
The Linux kernel is not enough to get a good operating system, thus many other pieces of software are required by default in a distribution. For instance, some experienced users hate working with SystemD, a popular system manager used by a lot of distribution, other will choose a distribution on the base display server communications protocols provided, X or Wayland.
For a beginner user these requirements should not be much of an issue, unless you need to work with a niche software that require specific pieces to be available in your distribution.
Which Linux distribution should I choose?
As you may have noticed, there are many Linux distributions to decide from. And the answer depends on your needs and wants. But I will introduce you to some Linux distributions that are recommended for beginners:
When Ubuntu was born, it was born with the motto "Linux for human beings" so the main letter of introduction is that it is simple but modern, besides being stable and supported for several years.
Aesthetically, it is impeccable thanks to the GNOME desktop environment. It has an excellent documentation, and it is also the distributions with the biggest online community.
One point against it is that Canonical, which is the company behind Ubuntu, pushes the use of
packages which are heavy and a bit slower. This push has led to Firefox being packaged in this format.
- Easy to use.
- Stable, thanks to being based on Debian.
- Good community support.
- Possibility to purchase support.
- Large number of packages.
- Not the most resource efficient.
- Requires modern hardware.
- Canonical's snap packages are heavy.
Linux Mint: From Freedom came elegance
Linux Mint is based on Ubuntu. So, it shares essential packages and components such as the kernel, graphics stack and so on. Therefore, what is the difference? Its desktop environment and mint-apps.
The desktop is not GNOME but a fork of it called Cinnamon, which has a more traditional look but built with modern technologies.
Mint-apps are applications created by the distribution's development team that give a simpler and more consistent feel to the distribution. These include a text editor, media player, update manager and so on.
- Very stable.
- Secure updates through the graphical interface.
- Better memory consumption.
- Traditional but customizable interface.
- Great community support due to being based on Ubuntu.
- Conservative to innovate desktop
- Slow development cycle
- Include many packages by default.
Debian is the base distribution used to build Ubuntu, Linux Mint, and many others. Thanks to a very conservative development cycle, Debian acquired the reputation of being one of the most stable distribution on the market. But this stability come with the cost of having packages that sometimes can be 1 or 2 years out of date.
Another aspect of Debian is that it is widely used both on servers and on the desktop. Moreover, although GNOME is the default desktop environment, you will be able to choose between a few others like Plasma or XFCE.
Debian is my personal distribution of choice when I need to set up a Linux server, and it's also the one used for the student servers of the Diving Linux command-line course.
- It is very stable
- Excellent community support
- Its package repositories are huge.
- Great base to make it your own
- Somewhat outdated packages
- Development branches not so clear to the user
- A bit less friendly for newcomers
Not all users can a complete and functional installation of Arch Linux. The reason, the installation is modular, and it is necessary to play with many configuration files. This makes it a distribution focused on those who already know Linux or who want to learn about it.
Arch Linux is a rolling release distribution that is constantly updated, bringing the most up-to-date packages. This is a great distribution to learn the many components of a Linux distribution, as you will have to work with many of them to get it to work as you want. By default, an Arch Linux installation is kind of raw, which makes it a good starting point to create something truly customized to your taste and needs.
- Latest updated packages
- Large package repository
- Good community and the best Wiki of all distributions
- Being a Rolling Release, Arch is not as stable as others
- Difficult to install and use for the novice user
- Strictly community support
Kali Linux is a security distribution derived from Debian. So, it inherits from it the number of tools available and some of its support. It is a particular distribution because it is designed specifically for computer security, computer forensics and advanced penetration testing. I would not recommend it to beginner, unless you need it to learn and practice penetration testing, security research, computer forensics or reverse engineering.
- Comes with specialized professional tools.
- Unique in its style.
- Good support
- Installation different from the rest.
- Don't use it if you're not aiming to be a security professional.
Fedora is maintained by Red Hat, but it has the reputation of being innovative because it is where the first tests of packages or technologies are made. By default, Fedora come with the latest Gnome desktop and SELinux enabled, making it a stable, secure and beautiful distribution, well suited for professional use.
Fedora is emerging as a solid alternative to debian-based distributions. It also gave birth to other projects like Fedora Server, Fedora IOT and Fedora Silverblue. I've personally used Fedora on my laptop for the past year and been happy with it.
- Great combination of stability and package versions.
- Abundant documentation and support.
- Backed by Red Hat.
- Less packages than Debian-based distributions
- SELinux being activated by default can complicate things for beginners
MX Linux is a lightweight Debian-based distribution that aims to provide users with an operating system that is well cared for in every way. Thanks to MX Linux, you will be able to dust off old computers and give them an updated system without sacrificing features.
One of the main features is speed. It's very agile and with a polished desktop. Of course, being focused on non-new computers, it is possible to miss some new features.
- Based on Debian Stable.
- Active development.
- Friendly community.
- Low resource consumption.
- So thin that it may lack features.
- Uses lightweight desktop environments and lacks certain commodities.
Lubuntu is another lightweight distribution that incorporates a desktop environment called LXQT that combines the simplicity and power of QT. The result is a complete and aesthetically beautiful distribution.
- Based on Ubuntu
- Large number of programs available
- Good number of applications installed by default
- Easy to install
- Doubts about its development
- As in MX Linux, it is lightweight and may be insufficient.
There are many Linux distributions and there are many criteria to evaluate before making a final decision. Things like ease of use, support, and philosophy are all factors in the decision you will have to make.
So, Which Linux distribution should I choose? The answer depends on your needs but in general if you have modern hardware Ubuntu, Linux Mint and Fedora are all great choices. If stability is a primary factor then Debian might be the optimal Debian option.
In any case, you will have a robust system based on the great Linux kernel.
Become an expert
If you want to learn more on this topic, consider trying the full Diving Linux course.
You will learn to use Linux from the command-line with confidence, by doing interactive hands-on exercises, and build a strong foundation in monitoring, networking, and system administration.